By Josh Allen, Research Development Officer History & Cultures
Viewed from one angle the brief seemed inauspicious. Mount a paid for public screening of a fifty two year old, black and white, subtitled film, without a standard linear storyline, at an out of the way arts centre at 19:30 in the evening on a Monday night in late September. But that is exactly what the School of History and Cultures did on the evening of 24th September when it screened The Battle of Algiers, followed by an expert panel discussion and Q&A at MAC Birmingham as part of the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Uprising: Spirit of ‘68 virtual film festival.
What was the result? It was a great success. Ninety eight tickets were sold-“a great Monday night for the MAC”-as their Operations Manager remarked to us afterwards. Feedback was strikingly positive, and based upon the demographic sampling undertaken over ten percent of attendees claimed a BME background, and around a third were under thirty; making the audience brilliantly diverse for an “art house” film.
Need the screening have been so successful? Not at all, it required a lot of hard work from a far from and disparate array of people. The planning stages of the screening benefited greatly from a clear division of labour, between Dr. Steve Hewitt; an expert in historical counter-terrorism and espionage who initiated the event, and Josh Allen the School of History and Cultures’ Research Development Officer. All of the operational aspects of the screening from securing funding, through liaising with the venue; to organising marketing and promotion sat with Josh, freeing up Steve to concentrate on putting together a really strong and engaging academic panel that could really spark a dialogue illuminating the film for the audience.
Indeed there was a pre-history to the event. Prior even thinking about mounting an event Josh was contacted in late May by Ian Francis the Director of the Flatpack Film Festival, who Josh had worked with before; who let him know that the BFI’s Film Audience Network was running a generous funding programme to support cinema events nationwide that tapped into the mood and spirit of “1968”. Aware of Steve’s interest in the late 1960s and the cultures of radicalism (and the repression of that radicalism) that swelled during that historical moment, Josh reached out to him; advised that the funding was available and offered to provide help in delivering an event if he was interested. Keen to take up this offer Steve selected The Battle of Algiers as the film he liked the most (and which despite having watched and taught it many times had never seen on the big screen!) and the one for which he thought he could put together the best panel.
An initial plan in place, Josh informally sounded out Amy Smart and Annabel Grundy at the Midland Film Hub (the local arm of the BFI responsible for co-ordinating the ‘68 themed virtual festival) to see whether this was the kind of event they’d be interested in supporting with a small grant and promotional assistance (it was). As well as Prof. Leslie Brubaker who in her capacity as BRIHC Director-under the system which prevailed at the time-held the School’s Development Fund intended to prime public engagement activities, who indicated a willingness to provide the money needed to privately hire MAC Birmingham’s cinema.
With initial funding from the School secured, Josh wrote a formal grant application for support from the BFI; and contacted MAC Birmingham about hiring their cinema for one evening in September. They were keen to be involved in the screening and Ian Sergeant (their Cinema Producer) and Damien Vincent (their Operations Manager) worked with Josh to decide upon the best time slot that fitted with their existing programme and Steve Hewitt’s availability. During this process the BFI responded to the School’s grant application affirmatively ensuring that there was money in place for a cinematic copy of The Battle of Algiers to be made available on the evening of 24th September and licensed to be shown at MAC Birmingham.
This meant that planning the event could move on to thinking about putting together a panel, marketing and promotion. Through his knowledge of the field and contacts Steve assembled sterling panel of academics able to discuss The context within which The Battle of Algiers was produced, its resonance then, and it’s significance now. He invited Dr. Maria Flood (Film Studies, Keele), Dr. Herjeet Marway (Philosophy, Birmingham) and Dr. Simon Jackson (History, Birmingham).
Panel in place low level marketing of the event via MAC’s website, the BFI Uprising site, and the university’s electronic channels commenced. This soon resulted in a trickle of sign-ups, but based upon prior experience; Josh knew that this would likely become stronger once September rolled around, and that was when to initiate a major marketing push via e-mail, social media and through physical print. Additional generous support from the university (including the Public Engagement with Research Fund) enabled Josh to commission a graphic designer and printer to produce 1,000 hard copy flyers and some digital promotional assets. MAC also placed the film screening prominently in their hard copy programme for September-November 2018 ensuring that casual visitors to the arts centre and other places where it is distributed-such as the Library of Birmingham-who flicked through, were aware that the event was taking place.
Upon taking delivery of the flyers Josh organised a targeted campaign to get them distributed to key locations around the city. Strategically focusing upon key venues where people interested in the event were likely to congregate. This ranged from venerable institutions such as the Birmingham Midland Institute and Stirchley Baths to fixtures of urban life such as coffee shops and cafe bars in King’s Heath, Moseley and the city centre, as well as emerging cultural organisations such as Centrala, Birmingham Impact Hub and the Beatfreaks Collective. This highly dispersed, yet still targeted advertising push in the last few weeks before the screening ensured that word of the event reached a wider circle of potentially engaged people than was possible just through the communications channels open to the university, the MAC, the BFI and the personal social and professional networks of those involved in delivering the screening.
Final push over, all that could be done was to arrange the chairs for the panel discussion, brief the steward and cinema technician and warm up the projector for the screening… And then distribute, collect in, processes the feedback forms and write final reports to funders… But that waited for the cold light of day. As indicated at the beginning of this piece everything about the event was an immense success from the organiser’s perspectives and also in the eyes of the external partners at the MAC, BFI and Flatpack who’s support made it possible.
In terms of takeaways and lessons that could be applied elsewhere, first and foremost is the importance of going with the grain and making full use of the different expertise available both “in house” and amongst your external partners. It is after all highly unlikely that the screening would have gone ahead at all without the initial e-mail from Ian Francis to Josh flagging that the funding scheme was open and soliciting applications. Josh has since reciprocated this by introducing Ian and Flatpack’s work the the university’s’ Development and Alumni Relations office, who have since extended Ian an invite to speak at their Alumni Reunion Day; about Flatpack’s Birmingham 1968 Heritage Lottery Fund funded project. An audience that he might not otherwise have been able to tap. This indicates the importance of ongoing and developing relationships to meaningful and effective public engagement. The best collaborations are never just flashes in the pan.
More generally MAC’s programming, built upon a reputation spanning decades; reaches a far wider audience of cultural engaged people than the university’s academic units like History and Cultures. Whilst hard to independently quantify, it is undoubtable that partnering with them and gaining access to their networks enabled the event to reach people who would not have thought to attend an event on campus, or gone out of their way to see what the university had on offer. Also-on perhaps a more prosaic level-MAC and the BFI both provided invaluable support in terms of administering the screening and logistics, not least in terms of being able to easily navigate the arcane process of negotiating with a film distributor!
Key to facilitating these collaborations was the fact that the event was a paid for screening. Paid for events and public engagement often seem like anathema to organisers, but they needn’t be. This is ostensibly for idealistic reasons, paid for admission is by its nature exclusionary; it puts a barrier in the way of those with limited or no means accessing a cultural opportunity. Something which engaged academics and public engagement/cultural programming professionals are by nature utterly adverse to. Often, however; it is quite possible that there is a lack of confidence in the event that has been put together. Organisers are concerned that if they charge nobody will come to their event. As History and Cultures’ experience with The Battle of Algiers shows this is far from the case, and if pitched right a paid for event can be a great success. Plus the revenue generated can be used to deliver a larger scale event than would otherwise be the case. Money made from the Battle of Algiers screening, has for instance; covered a chunk of the promotional costs incurred when advertising the event, paid for the attendance of the external speaker and enabled fifteen students to claim back the cost of taxi fares from campus to MAC Birmingham-and back-to take part in the event. Things which otherwise either would not have happened or which would have had to have been paid for through some other means.
Mounting a paid for screening also made it easier to work with MAC Birmingham. At a time when MAC’s local authority support grant has been winowed away, and other funders such as the Arts Council and private trusts are facing greater pressures than ever upon their budgets; it is imperative upon organisations like the university to try and keep their spending local and pump their resources into local venues. The cinema hire costs and their share of the ticket revenue; will have helped MAC to maintain their current excellent standard of programming and service to Birmingham’s communities, but crucial also was the additional trade that the screening brought them. Many of those who attended brought food, drink and other items from MAC’s cafe and bar, putting hundreds of pounds of additional revenue through their tills. It is through mounting events like these, being a positive collaborator and catalyst for local organisations, that the university can support the cultural sector and enhance and grow its role in the city, the region and beyond.